How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven?

Q. How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven? I have of course recognized my sin and asked the Lord into my life to take control of all of it.

What you’re asking about is sometimes known as “assurance of salvation.” It’s one of the main themes of the biblical book of First John, so I’ll answer your question from that book. What we find there is that there isn’t one single means by which we get assurance; rather, it comes through a combination of things.

One thing that John writes in this letter is, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” He adds, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This is sometimes put this way: “Progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” That is, as we find ourselves, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, living more and more in the way God intends, this assures us that we truly  do belong to Him.

Right after this, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness, but anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” So another sign that God has saved us is that our relationships are transformed. We become more and more able to love others; we live out this love by helping and serving and forgiving them.

A bit later John speaks of those who “went out from us, but did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” In other words, remaining within the community of Jesus’ followers,  persevering in the faith, is another sign of genuine belief. “Continue in him,” John says, “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” God wants us to receive this confidence, this assurance, through the way we see our faith persevere over time and despite difficulties.

Further on John says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” So our awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is something that gives us further assurance of salvation.

John does also say, near the end of his letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So there is indeed an aspect of putting our faith and trust in Jesus as our Savior, as you describe. But the practical themes of living as God commands, loving others, persevering in the faith, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work are woven through the entire letter, like the different themes of a musical composition. So we see that this belief is meant to be manifested in practical ways, and this is what really gives us assurance.

John concludes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So assurance of salvation is clearly something that God wants each believer to have. But it comes from reflecting on our own lives, from recognizing the progress we are making under the influence of God’s Spirit. Confessing our sin and turning our lives over to God is a necessary start. But it’s what God does with our lives from there that gives us the confidence that we truly do belong to Him.

So how about you? Are you finding that, by God’s grace and with His help, you’re more and more able to live as He wishes? Do you have greater love for others, expressed in greater patience, forgiveness, and practical compassion in dealing with them? Are you persevering in your commitment to Jesus, “no turning back, no turning back”? Are you discovering that the Holy Spirit is very much living inside you and bringing about transformation? Then all of these things, building on your initial confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, should indeed give you confidence that you have “eternal life.”

And that phrase actually means more than going to heaven when you die. It’s not just a quantitative term (life of infinite duration), it’s a qualitative one—it means life that is better and greater because it’s lived in relationship and fellowship with God. And we are meant to enjoy that even in this life.

Why will there still be sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom?

Q. When Jesus died on the cross God split the veil of the temple giving access to himself thru Christ. Making that system no longer valid. Why then does it talk about in the future millennial kingdom that the sacrifices will continue?

I believe you are referring to the way the restored temple in Ezekiel’s vision still has facilities for preparing and offering “burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.” Interpreters who understand this vision to depict the future millennial kingdom of Christ explain that these sacrifices will be offered in honor and memory of what Jesus did on the cross. The sacrifices under the old covenant looked forward to the death of Jesus; these future sacrifices will look back upon the death of Jesus, just as every time we take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” “in remembrance of him.”

Should the Bible’s inspiration be described as “verbal plenary”?

Q. I have been taught that the correct description of how the Bible was inspired is “verbal plenary.” Is that supported by what the Bible actually says about itself, or is there a more accurate description? Is “verbal plenary inspiration” what orthodox Christians (a majority? a minority? a fringe?) have held to throughout history? Thanks!

Those who hold to the “verbal plenary inspiration” of Scripture believe that every  word throughout the Bible was individually inspired by God. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Bible’s inspiration was first described this way by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield in their article “Inspiration,” which appeared in The Presbyterian Review in April 1881. In that article, they stated their conviction that “the divine superintendence, which we call Inspiration, extended to the verbal expression [i.e. words] of the thoughts of the sacred writers, as well as to the thoughts themselves.”

So to answer the last part of your question first, this is not a belief that orthodox Christians have held to throughout history, at least not under that name. Rather, Christians in all times and places have held more generally to the belief that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “all Scripture is inspired by God.” Many translations now render this phrase as “all Scripture is God-breathed” or “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” reflecting the Greek term theopneustos. (The English word “inspired” is itself based on the root for “breathe.”)

So Christians believe that in some way the Scriptures are the “breath of God,” that is, something that emanates directly from Him. But they have always held various views about on what level inspiration actually resides. Some indeed believe that it is effective on the level of the words of Scripture (verbal plenary), while others believe that it’s the biblical authors intended meaning that is inspired. Still others say that the story of God’s saving actions in human history is what is inspired within the Bible. There are other views as well.

So the specifics of where inspiration resides seem to me to be a matter on which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, can legitimately differ. As a result, I think any Christian would be well advised to be “fully convinced in their own mind” on the matter, but at the same time to be charitable towards those who hold different views that nevertheless respect the Bible as “breathed out by God.”

Why should we recycle plastics if Jesus is coming back soon?

Q. A Christian friend of mine goes to a lot of trouble to recycle plastics because, he says, he doesn’t want them “sitting in a landfill for centuries.” But wouldn’t Jesus have come back long before then?

Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers have had the lively expectation that he could return at any time, and they have been right to have that expectation. But where would we be today if people living many centuries ago had said, “It’s all right if we do things that could permanently damage the environment, because Jesus could return at any time”? In the same way, we need to be concerned about the generations that will come after us if Jesus doesn’t return soon.

Beyond that, we express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, “If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?”

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” That means, among other things, “Lord Jesus, please come back soon and deliver this world from everything that’s wrong with it.” I personally hope that Jesus will answer that prayer and come back very soon. But whether it’s ultimately a long time or a short time, we should be cooperating now with what we recognize his program will be when he does return.

Did God tell a man that He’d help him kill the king so that he could become king himself?

Q. I read in the Bible many years ago that God told one man (I forgot who) that he would be king, and the man replied that there was already a king, so how could he become the king? God answered him something like I will help you kill him so you can become the king. Where in the Bible do I find this?

The story line you’re describing actually sounds to me a lot more like Shakespeare’s play Macbeth than something in the Bible. Near the beginning of that play, three witches greet Macbeth as “thane of Glamis” (his actual title), as “thane of Cawdor” (a position that belongs to someone else), and as someone who will “be king hereafter.” Macbeth replies:

I know I am thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor.

In other words, Macbeth knows he has inherited his own title, but there is already a thane of Cawdor, and there is already a king, so those titles can’t apply to him. But right afterwards, he learns that the king has executed the thane of Cawdor as a traitor and given him his title. Unfortunately Macbeth reasons that if the first thing the witches told him was true, then the second could be true as well, and he might become king. Even though his friend Banquo warns him that “to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths” (in other words, the witches have no good intentions), Macbeth unfortunately decides he should kill the king and take over the throne, since that has been predicted for him. This leads only to disaster for Macbeth—but I won’t tell you any more here; the play is so good, you really need to see it or read it for yourself!

The one place in the Bible that’s somewhat similar to what you’re describing is where God tells David that he will become king, even though a different man, Saul, is currently on the throne. But God never tells David that he will help him kill Saul. And although David later gets two opportunities when he can easily kill Saul and even claim that this is in self-defense, he does not. Instead, despite encouragement from his own soldiers that God has provided these opportunities in order to fulfill His word that David will be king, he replies (swearing an oath):

“As surely as the Lord lives, the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed.

That is, David expected that Saul would either die of some illness or accident, or in battle, or even of old age, but he wouldn’t do anything to kill Saul himself, even though God had promised him that he would be king. So you may be remembering what God predicted for David while Saul was still alive, but perhaps mixing that memory with some details from another story.

Was it God or Satan who incited David to take a census?

Q. In 2 Samuel, the author says that God incited David to take a census of the people because He was angry with Israel. But in 1 Chronicles, the writer says that Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census. I am inclined to blame David himself, since as king, he would bear blame for all royal decisions. The author of 2 Samuel, who is usually truthful, might have felt he needed to avoid blaming the king. But later, in both accounts, David admits his sin. Who was truly responsible for David’s taking a census: God, Satan, or David?

Joab brings David the census report

The question you’re asking about is precisely the issue I mentioned when I was asked some years ago what problem in the Bible bothered me the most. In my biblical teaching, I’ve always used a “good question” format. For example, in one of the churches I served as a pastor, for our adult Sunday School curriculum one semester I just told the people, “Write down all the questions you have about the Bible and we’ll work through them together.” I always served churches near colleges and universities, and when my wife and I would have groups of students over for dinner, after the meal she would say to them, “Does anyone have any questions about the Bible? Chris loves to answer those!” At one of these gatherings a student once said to me, “All right, you’ve answered our questions, now what bothers you about the Bible?” And I mentioned this issue—how the Bible attributes the same action in one place to God but in another place to Satan. How much more of a contradiction could you find?

But here’s how I  finally came to terms with the issue. I recognized that as the biblical authors tell the story, they often share their perspectives on why things happened. These perspectives are “inspired” in a sense that I’ll describe shortly, since these are, after all, biblical authors. But the case we’re considering shows that they can’t be “inspired” in the sense of always infallibly correct through divine intervention in the ordinary process of storytelling and composition, because if they were, the Bible simply wouldn’t be able to attribute the same action both to the ultimate holy agent (God) and the ultimate evil agent (Satan) at the same time.

So what’s going on here? As I said, the biblical authors comment on the story as they tell it. (The title of Günther Bornkamm‘s classic volume Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew helped crystallize this insight for me: The biblical authors are entrusted with passing on the tradition of the stories of God’s work in the world, but they also share their own interpretations of it.) For example, in 2 Kings, the author is describing how, right after the long and godly reign of Josiah, the kingdom of Judah was plundered by foreign invaders and ultimately destroyed. The author comments, “Surely these things happened … because of the sins of Manasseh,” Josiah’s grandfather, “and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”

The author uses a term in Hebrew, translated “surely” here, that means “this has to be” or “this can only be …” For example, in 1 Kings, the Arameans are fighting against King Ahab of Israel, who has enlisted King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. Somehow Ahab persuades Jehoshaphat to wear his royal robes into the battle while he goes in disguise himself. When the Arameans see Jehoshaphat in his robes, they say, using this same term, “This has to be the king of Israel.” But when Jehoshaphat cries out to the Lord for help, they realize he can’t be Ahab (who was known to worship Baal), so they leave him alone and go looking for Ahab instead.

So the term is a “particle of assurance or emphasis,” as William Holladay says in his Hebrew lexicon. But why would a biblical author need to use such an expression at all (“this must have been because …”) if they were writing under a kind of divine inspiration that guaranteed that they knew all the reasons for things? Examples like this not only illustrate that this isn’t the way in which the Bible is inspired, they also show that the biblical authors themselves aren’t aware that they are writing Scripture. Another clear example is when Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” besides Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. I have no trouble believing that God helped Paul provide the right names, without any omissions, of the people he baptized in Corinth. But if God was doing that, Paul didn’t realize it! Instead, he admitted, “I don’t remember.” So Scriptural inspiration does not involve overriding the ordinary limitations on human memory and perspective.

I don’t find that at all disappointing, however. I actually find it quite exciting that God, in effect, allowed and even invited the biblical authors to contribute their own perspectives as they told the story. As readers, we are then invited to put these perspectives into conversation with one another, if they seem to differ, and we are also invited to join in conversation with them ourselves. This is precisely what you’re doing when you suggest that the author of 2 Samuel might not have wanted to blame David, but you’re inclined to blame him yourself. Excellent!

We can certainly observe that in any situation, God has a plan, and Satan has a plan, to work with the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own larger purposes. In our day-to-day walk with the Lord, we need to be very discerning about the situations we face: We need to ask ourselves, “How can I recognize and cooperate with God’s plan for this situation, and how can I recognize and avoid furthering Satan’s plan?” It seems to me that the author of 1 Chronicles recognized that Satan would try to use any opportunity to damage and destroy David’s kingdom, while the author of 2 Samuel recognized that God was already aware of the pride and confidence in human power that the census expressed and that God was displeased with these things. These two authors bring out these complementary perspectives. And you have added your own perspective, well supported by the text: David’s own pride, which led him to persist in taking the census even after Joab told him the Lord was Israel’s protector, rather than the army, was also responsible. David confessed afterwards that he had sinned.

So what we have ultimately is a conversation within the text, and between the reader and the text, about why particular things happen in the story. And as I see it, that is the level on which inspiration resides. What we are given in the Bible is an inspired conversation that we are invited to join. We can be confident that the answer to our question is in that conversation, although we may discover, as we talk things out with the biblical authors, that we actually have a deeper question than we may have realized at first. Maybe the issue isn’t really, “Which one of these three was responsible for the census: God, Satan, or David?” Maybe the issue is actually, “In a moral universe in which forces of good and evil try to work through the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own purposes, how can I make choices that will not further the purposes of evil, but rather help further God’s purposes and enable me to join in with them?”

How long after God rejected Saul did God tell Samuel to stop mourning for him?

Q. How long was it from when God rejected Saul as king because of his second serious disobedience (when God said, “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions”) to when God said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?”

This is one of those questions that we just don’t get enough information from the Bible to answer. But in cases like this, we should always see what we can find out by trying to get the answer.

We know that Saul was king for a total of forty-two years. (In his speech in the book of Acts, Stephen uses the round number of forty years.) We don’t know how long Saul had been king at the time of his first disobedience, when Samuel told him that as a consequence he would not found a dynasty, even though he would remain king himself. But many years must have passed between that time and Saul’s second disobedience, because the narrative in 1 Samuel says in between, “After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.” As I said in my previous post, “Saul had many positive qualities (courage, leadership) that enabled him to win some significant initial victories on the people’s behalf.”

However, after these years and these victories, unfortunately Saul seriously disobeyed the Lord a second time, as I discuss in this post. God then told Samuel to tell Saul that he would not live out his years as king. The Bible informs us that “Samuel was upset at this, and he prayed to the Lord all night long. Samuel clearly recognized Saul’s good qualities, and it seems that he was trying to intercede with God on his behalf. But God’s message to Saul, through Samuel, was that despite all the potential he still had, God simply couldn’t use someone who wouldn’t obey. Samuel delivered this message, and after that, we are told, he “left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.

It was only after some further time that God said to Samuel, How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” This gives us a little bit of a clue about the overall time frame. David became king, after Saul’s death, at age 30; he was very likely under 20 years old when Samuel anointed him, since he still wasn’t old enough to serve in the army. So there were at least ten years between the time God told Samuel to stop mourning and when Saul died. If we assume that took at least 10–20 years for Saul to conduct all of those military campaigns against the hostile surrounding nations after first establishing his own rule, it seems likely that not much more than 10 years could have passed between when God said he was rejecting Saul as king and when God told Samuel to stop mourning. The time could even have been shorter than this, depending on when Saul actually did disobey for the second time. But the expression how long? suggests that it was at least a period of some years. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. As I said, we aren’t given enough information to know for sure, but I would personally estimate somewhere from a few years to as many as ten years.

So what can we learn from trying to answer this question, even if we can’t settle on an exact time period? For one thing, we see that it was appropriate for Samuel to pray for Saul and to mourn for him. The Bible affirms these actions by recording them for us. The loss of a great leader’s potential future contributions through misconduct is tragic. We honor God, who gives leaders their abilities and opportunities, when we acknowledge what a loss it is when these gifts can no longer be used to the fullest.

However, another thing we learn is that it is not appropriate to mourn such a loss forever. People need to reach the point where they accept the consequences of their own actions, and we ourselves need to reach the point where we accept the consequences of others’ actions and join in the response that God is making to the new circumstances that have resulted from them.

Saul’s son Jonathan actually provides an excellent example of this. After David had to flee from Saul, Jonathan went to see him and helped him find strength in God. He told him, You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you.” In other words, Jonathan accepted that he would not become king himself, succeeding his father, because Saul had forfeited his rights to a dynasty and even to the kingship. Jonathan accepted that David would become king instead. But he envisioned where he would fit in those new circumstances, and he was prepared to assume this role and make his contribution. Unfortunately, Jonathan himself was killed in the same battle in which his father Saul died, so he wasn’t able to fulfill these plans. But he nevertheless provides a good model of accepting the consequences of another person’s actions—even when they affect our own future prospects—and planning to take part in the new things that God will do in light of those consequences.

This is what God was telling Samuel to do as well. God wanted him, in effect, to stop wishing that Saul could still be king and go anoint someone else. Mourning for a leader’s lost potential contributions should not be endless and infinite; it’s God’s purposes in the world that are infinite, and all other considerations must be subordinate to them. However, I think we can also assume that God did allow Samuel to mourn Saul for the full time period that was appropriate. This explains why there was a delay between the two things you’re asking about, however long that delay might have been.